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Everything About Open Container Law in NC


Whether you’re a resident of NC or just visiting, you need to know exactly what’s allowed when it comes to alcoholic beverages in open containers and vehicles. The law states that it is illegal to transport an open container in NC in a car’s passenger area. However, you may wonder, “What is the passenger area?” “Are there any exceptions?” 

Let’s look at the answers to these questions and what can happen if you face open container charges in NC.

What is Open Container Law in NC?

It is illegal to have an open alcoholic drink (“open” means a broken seal) in the passenger area of a motor vehicle. The law applies whether you are on a highway or roadway. Even if you park your car in a public parking area, an open container is still illegal in the passenger areas.

If you’re wondering what the “passenger area” is, the law includes:

  • Areas designed to seat the driver
  • Areas designed to seat the passengers
  • Any area within reach of a seated driver or passenger, including the glove compartment

The only exception is in the case of a station wagon, hatchback, or similar vehicle. With these types of cars, the area behind the last upright back seat is not part of the passenger area. However, there are other exceptions, so keep reading to find out what they are. (1)

Exceptions to Open Container Law

Reading open container law makes it sound like no one may ever carry open containers. However, this is not true. There are exceptions to the open container law.

However, North Carolina allows open containers in the passenger area if you meet all of these three criteria:

  1. The open containers are specific types of alcohol only (see below)
  2. The driver has no alcohol in their blood
  3. AND the driver is operating:
  • A motor vehicle designed, manufactured, and used primarily for transportation for compensation (buses, taxi-cabs, etc.)
  • Motor home or home car: open containers allowed in the living quarters (These are vehicular units designed to provide temporary living quarters, built into a self-propelled motor vehicle chassis or van.)
  • House trailer: open containers allowed in the living quarters (Any trailer or semitrailer designed and equipped to provide living or sleeping facilities and drawn by a motor vehicle)

In the above examples, the law allows only certain types of malt beverages, including:

  • beer
  • malt liquor
  • ale
  • hard lemonade
  • unfortified wine (table wine, champagne) (1)

Types of Alcohol ALWAYS Illegal as Open Containers

North Carolina deems some types of alcohol as always illegal in the passenger area of a motor vehicle on the road or in a public space, such as a public parking lot. Illegal types of alcohol in passenger areas include open containers of:

  • Spirituous liquors such as bourbon, gin, vodka, tequila, etc
  • Mixed drinks
  • Fortified wine: higher alcohol content levels such as 17% to 24%, including sherry or port (1)

Examples of Open Container Law In North Carolina

So to flesh this out a bit and look at what can happen with drinking and open containers in North Carolina, let’s look at some examples.

Open Container Charges For a Non-Drinking Driver

Let’s say you drive to a friend’s house. As a last-minute thought, you grab an open bottle of wine before leaving and stuff it in a grocery bag with snacks. However, you speed on the way, and law enforcement stops you. The officer sees the previously opened bottle of wine sticking out of your grocery bag.

You can face a non-criminal violation with an associated fine in this case. Since you didn’t drink alcohol before leaving your home, you will not get a DUI. You will likely face penalties much less severe than if you were drinking before leaving home.

Open Container Charges for a Drinking Driver

However, let’s say you drank two glasses of wine at home and drove to see your friend. In this case, the officer stops you for speeding, and they smell alcohol on your breath. The officer asks you to take a breathalyzer test. You score a .06 and receive misdemeanor charges for driving with an open container while having alcohol in your system.

The officer probably knew that smelling the odor of an alcoholic beverage on your breath would not prove in court that you consumed alcohol. However, if an officer requests you take a screening test or chemical analysis, and you refuse, watch out! Refusing a test can result in you losing your license on a first offense for up to a year, regardless of whether you are convicted! (2)

Open Container Charges for a Drunk Driver

If you’d had three glasses, you could likely have also received a DUI in addition to misdemeanor charges for an open container. In North Carolina, you can face DUI charges if your blood alcohol level is .08 or above while driving or the officer believes you are noticeably impaired even if you are below a .08 or they don’t have a specific number.

DUI charges can bring time in prison, a permanent criminal record with no expungement, loss of driving privileges, and fines in addition to court and attorney fees.

Drinking While Parked

Let’s say your friend calls while you are on the way to their house and tells you not to come over. So instead, you drive to a town parking lot and sit in the passenger seat drinking your wine, people-watching. An officer pulls up and sees you drinking a bottle of wine in your passenger seat. 

You can face misdemeanor charges for possessing an open container in your car’s passenger seat if you have alcohol in your system, even if you turned your car off!

Law enforcement can also possibly charge you for DUI if you try to drive home or if you are in the driver’s seat with the car in, even if you are just parked.

We Can Help

If you are facing charges for open container or DUI, it is crucial to contact our experienced criminal defense attorneys at The Scharff Law Firm. We can help you understand your rights and options. Our experience helping clients face open container and DUI charges is critical for your future. We help you get the best possible outcome in your case. Contact us today for a free consultation to see how we can help you.